If you want to understand King Lil G, start with Emiliano Zapata.

According to family lore, L.A.’s most popular Latino rapper since Cypress Hill descends from the famed Mexican revolutionary. With mild imagination, it’s easy to draw parallels between the iconic advocate for the dispossessed and the socially conscious people’s champ raised in Inglewood and South Gate.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been very outspoken … voicing my opinion and trying to spread a message of common sense. My grandmother always told me it was be-cause of where I come from,” the 29-year-old rising star says at a Mexican restaurant at L.A. Live, close to his DTLA residence.

A clef note tattoo rests under his eye. His neck and arms are covered in symbols of women, music, death and hometown pride, and remind you that Alex Gonzalez’s first rap name was Lil Gangster.

“Once we love something too much, we often lose perspective,” Lil G continues. “I try and teach my people that it’s OK to love being Mexican, but don’t take it over-board. Love Kobe Bryant, but don’t hate every other basketball player.”

In a genre that often slants toward extremes, King Lil G seeks moderation. He’s a moralist without being self-righteous, an ex-gangbanger and dope dealer raised by a single mom, attempting to steer people away from the traps that once ensnared him. He gets high but not too high.

The songs feel real in the stories and people that they portray. They’re filled with temptation, regret and pain, as well as celebration, brown pride and joy. 2Pac famously said it “wouldn’t be L.A. without Mexicans.” Lil G is the grown-up kid who heeded his call, determined to be a voice for those whom the system failed.

His biography is embedded in the music. Listen to his most popular song, 2014’s “Hopeless Boy” (8 million YouTube views and counting): “Fuck rapping and bragging about the way you balling/Spray cans in my backpack and I was starving/In middle school with a trey five seven revolver/My family said I wasn’t going to make it/Now I’m grinding harder.”

He’s emblematic of the latest generation of L.A. rappers, who write stark street narratives that neither glamorize nor demonize gang life: Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, Boogie.

For Gonzalez, his determination to escape started when he was a teenager, after his older brother was sentenced to 32 years for attempted murder.

“When he went to jail, I was like, ‘OK, what happens now? A medal? Love from the homies?’” Gonzalez asks. “But he got forgotten about. People didn’t write, people didn’t visit. No support system.”

He slowly stopped hanging around the set. When confronted about his absence, Gonzalez responded with fists.

Shortly thereafter, he had a son and became fully committed to making legal money. Starting in 2010, he invested his funds into mixtapes and videos. Through constant personal interaction with fans, he built what was once an entirely local Latino audience of a few hundred into hundreds of thousands, cutting across all ethnicities.

He did it without label or publicist. Turning down major-label offers, he’s a grass-roots phenomenon. He does turkey giveaways in Compton, visits cancer patients in South Gate and sponsors toy drives.

Another mixtape looms in March. Gonzalez recently signed to Del Records, a Latin-music powerhouse that should earn him significant inroads south of the border. There are imminent plans to record in Spanish.

“I want to be what Bob Marley meant to Jamaicans. I don’t mean only to Mexicans but people in general,” Lil G says. “I’m trying to spread a message of respect for women, children and everyone else. If you’re going to be brave, be brave in the way that you think.”

An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.

More from Jeff Weiss:
O.C. Rapper Phora Has Nearly Been Murdered Twice, But His Music Stays Positive
L.A. Is in the Midst of a Funk Renaissance
How Filipino DJs Came to Dominate West Coast Turntablism

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